Coens' Series-Turned-Film "Buster Scruggs" Falls Flat

Further obscuring the ever-softening line between television and film, Joel and Ethan Coen’s western “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” was originally announced as a limited series for Netflix. Now, it’s a six-part anthology film, the brothers insisting it was always intended to be a movie. Pity. Its six disparate chapters – one hysterically funny, most doggedly grim – would be better apart than together, each gnawed on and digested on its own terms.

The picture peaks out of the gate in a segment starring Tim Blake Nelson as the title character. Buster Scruggs is a chipper, fourth wall-breaking cowboy who sings his way through various macabre situations. It’s a remarkable pairing of character, concept, and performer; perhaps not enough to sustain an entire film but certainly worth more than the paltry fifteen minutes of screen time Scruggs receives, never to appear again.

Part two, titled “Near Algodones,” is an only modestly charming tale of a bank robber (James Franco) whose initial escape from a hanging ultimately provides for a classic Coen brothers one-liner (“First time?”). Chapter three, “Meal Ticket,” features a nearly silent Liam Neeson as an impresario traveling the old west, capitalizing on the acting talents of an armless, legless thespian (Harry Melling). Its gloomy conclusion begs time for reflection, but instead we’re on to the next thing: the film’s most inessential segment, followed by its longest.

Tom Waits plays a weathered prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Zoe Kazan a woman traveling to Oreon in a wagon train in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who collaborated with the Coens on what this critic considers the best film of their career and perhaps the twenty-first century (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), photographs the film beautifully. The vistas and natural light combine with some impressive special effects to immerse us in the Coens’ vision of the old west. Their first foray into shooting digitally is an impressive one.

But these two segments drag on well past their expiration dates (Kazan’s is nearly forty minutes long), the cumulative effect likely to elicit a defeated “So what?” from many a Netflix subscriber.

The final chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is relatively absorbing, not to mention charitably brief, observing five stagecoach passengers (veteran actors Brendan Gleeson and Saul Rubinek stand out) divulging some of their darkest secrets on a late night ride. Taken on its own it might be a perfectly delightful little yarn. But as the apex of an anthology film whose only connective tissue is mortal danger and death, there’s no deal to be sealed. It just ends.

Joel and Ethan Coen have so many classics to their names that it’s tough to begrudge them a little experimentation. But “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” is an experiment that doesn’t quite work – at least not in this form. It doesn’t measure up to the best of their most earnest work, nor is it a prime example of their wicked sense of humor. (Even minor Coen movies “The Ladykillers” and “Intolerable Cruelty” yield more laughs.) Fans will check in, and check in they should – but with expectations firmly in “lesser Coen brothers” territory.

Better yet, watch a chapter at a time.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 16, 2018
Studio: Netflix
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenwriters: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek
MPAA Rating: R (for some strong violence)